Vatican Radio On Pre-16 Potter Brouhaha

by Jimmy Akin

in Benedict XVI

Fr. Roderick Vonhögen of CATHOLIC INSIDER has just kindly e-mailed me a transcript he made of a recent broadcast of Vatican Radio dealing with the alleged remarks of then-Cardinal Ratzinger on the Harry Potter books.

The piece was an interview with Msgr. Peter Fleedwood, the Vatican official who initially made (what turn out to be) moderately pro-Potter comments when asked a question about the books at a press conference.

I’ve put the entire text of the interview in the extended body of this post (click below to read it). I should say that I don’t agree with everything Msgr. Fleedwood says (e.g., I don’t think that the Harry Potter books are any great shakes as literature), but reading his side of the story sheds interesting light on the events in question.

In particular, let me call attention to a couple of things he said. First, he mentions something that I thought was likely the case, though I didn’t want to conjecture it without evidence. Msgr. Fleedwood, though, knows the workings of Vatican offices better than I and has more of a basis to say it, so here goes:

I was sent a letter from a lady in Germany who claimed to have
written to the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, saying that she thought Harry
Potter was a bad thing. And the letter back, which I suspect was
written by an assistant of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his office,
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that there
was a subtle seduction in the books. What that subtle seduction was,
was not specified, which makes me think it was a generic answer. And
she had written a book on these subjects and so the Cardinal’s
signature was at the bottom of the letter, suggesting she should send
me the book.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Msgr. Fleedwood were correct on this point. Folks in important positions–including those in the Vatican–often use ghostwriters, and it would not be surprising at all to learn that routine correspondence such as thank you notes like the one in question were handled by assistants and then presented for the boss’s signature.

Fr. Fleedwood continues:

She sent me the book, and I found it a very unsatisfactory book. I
don’t think she understands English humour. For example, she said: one
sign that these books are making fun of Judaism and Christianity is
that Voldemort, the wicked magician, who is the great evil power
against whom Harry Potter has to fight, is referred to often as ‘he who
must not be named’, and she takes this as an insult to the name of God
in a similar way that Adonai, which is often written as Yahweh, is the
name that should not be said in Jewish religion. Well I replied to her:
don’t you know that even within English families, men who make fun of
their relationship with women in a nice, lighthearted way say: "Oh, she
who should not be named," meaning the power in the house, their wife.
You know, I think it was meant on that kind of level.

This comment also rings true for me, and for several reasons. First, I’ve seen my share of anti-New Age books that go paranoid in finding connections between things that aren’t there. (I wish people would write more serious and sober anti-New Age books, because the paranoid ones give the whole genre a bad name.)

Second, if you read the Potter books or watch the movies, it’s clear that the people in the stories are themselves being paranoid by not saying the name "Voldemort." As Msgr. Fleedwood points out, Harry Potter has the courage to say the name of his enemy and isn’t cowed by the mere mention of the name, like the others are. Thus Rowling isn’t presenting Voldemort’s name as too sacred to mention, she’s presenting everybody but Harry as being too easily spooked. You may or may not like that literarily, but it isn’t a diss at God.

Third, I have my own experience with circumlocutions of this nature. A few years ago I was dating a woman who turned out to be from the planet Yuggoth (the only one of all the women I’ve ever dated). The experience was so surreal (the phrase "Did not know what men are for" comes to mind) that, among the circle of my friends who were aware of the experience at the time, she has become known as "She Who Is Not To Be Named."

Anyway, click below for Msgr. Fleedwood’s comments, courtesy of Fr. Roderick Vonhögen.

Speak Of The Devil…

Transcript of the Vatican Radio program 105, live on Thursday, July 14, 2005.


By Fr. Roderick Vonhögen (


We turn to an event taking place on the 16th of July, one much awaited by the fans of the best-selling Harry Potter books, the publication of the sixth in this series: Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince. Simply because world media is suggesting pope Benedict XVI believes these books put readers on a slippery slope with their subtle seduction and distortion of Christianity in the world.


"Put perhaps", says monsignor Peter Fleedwood, an expert on New Age and former official at the Pontifical Council for Culture, "no offense, the lady who complained to the then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about Joanna Rowling’s popular series back in 2003, may not have quite understood a very British sense of humour".


Monsignor Fleedwood also recalls how he was first asked about Harry Potter at a press conference in the Vatican during the presentation of the New Age document by the title of "Jesus Christ, Bearer of the Water of Life" in February 2003.


Msgr. Fleetwood:


"I’ve been asked by a lot of people if they should allow their children to read Joanna Rowling’s books about the trainee-magician Harry Potter. And the reason why they ask is that they’ve heard that some of the content is anti-Christian. I can’t see that personally. I was asked once in a press-conference in the Vatican whether I thought the witchcraft and magic in Harry Potter was a bad thing, and I said to the people present: ‘did anyone in this room grow up without stories about witches and fairies and magic and spells and mystery and so on and so forth?’, and everyone seemed to agree that none of us had grown up without those things. And then I said: ‘did it make us into enemies of the faith, or enemies of God, or enemies of the Church?’ And people seemed to say: ‘no, no’. And I said: ‘well, I can’t see any problem with Harry Potter, because, really, all the stories are about the victory of good over evil’. People say: ‘yes, but Harry uses magic spells!’ Well, that’s only a kind of literary device to keep children interested. It’s not putting forth a theory about magic. I know lots of teachers in England, and they’ve all said to me: ‘How remarkable! All of a sudden we don’t have to ask children to read books!’ There’s been a real craze. The unfortunate thing is, people call it a ‘cult book’ and then mad people say: ‘oh, it’s a cult’ – meaning a religious cult, and it’s not!


It’s just a fashion, because every child tells every other child: you should read Harry Potter. So they’ve all read all the books, and they all know all the details and so on and so forth. And the teachers I know in England just say simply: ‘isn’t it marvelous that kids want to read? We don’t have to force them to read’. And many parents have said the same thing.


And parents have asked me about Harry Potter’s books. I’ve always said: why don’t you read them? Or read them with your children, or read them to your children. Or you read them first and see if you can see anything bad.


I was sent a letter from a lady in Germany who claimed to have written to the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, saying that she thought Harry Potter was a bad thing. And the letter back, which I suspect was written by an assistant of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that there was a subtle seduction in the books. What that subtle seduction was, was not specified, which makes me think it was a generic answer. And she had written a book on these subjects and so the Cardinal’s signature was at the bottom of the letter, suggesting she should send me the book.


She sent me the book, and I found it a very unsatisfactory book. I don’t think she understands English humour. For example, she said: one sign that these books are making fun of Judaism and Christianity is that Voldemort, the wicked magician, who is the great evil power against whom Harry Potter has to fight, is referred to often as ‘he who must not be named’, and she takes this as an insult to the name of God in a similar way that Adonai, which is often written as Yahweh is the name that should not be said in Jewish religion. Well I replied to her: don’t you know that even within English families, men who make fun of their relationship with women in a nice, lighthearted way say: oh, she who should not be named, meaning the power in the house, their wife. You know, I think it was meant on that kind of level.


In any case though, the very people who complain about such things are the ones who would want priests above all, and teachers within the catholic faith, to speak about the devil, and to name the devil, rather then to speak of some abstract, evil force. Harry Potter is the only one, in the Harry Potter books, who names evil: Voldemort. The ‘flight of death’ if you like, that’s what his name literally means. So Harry is the one that doesn’t avoid naming evil, or naming the evil one. Harry is doing exactly what those people want, and showing by his lack of fear of evil, that he believes that goodness will triumph.


And in fact, Rowling’s books all follow the classical mythological pattern and good always triumphs over evil. She studied classical mythology at the university and uses that structure of myth as the basis of the way she writes her novels. She also was brought up as a Christian and I mentioned that in the famous press conference. People quoted that as saying that I had said that her books were imbued with Christian morals. I said no such thing. I simply suggested that there’s no ignoring your own background. I also said that she’s not the kind Christian your average zealous priest might want, in the sense of practicing religion every week, but there is no denying that she has a Christian background. I said no more.


And people have obviously worked of a strange translation of what I said in Italian. It is notable that the only complaints I got were from people using a translation. I don’t know who made that translation. They never asked me any questions about whether they got it right. They certainly didn’t understand what I’d said in the press conference. So I only whish there had been more time to talk then, but the press conference was about something quite different, and it was only one question that was blown out of proportion.


But I remain firmly convinced that the Harry Potter novels are very well written. They are written on the classical plot of good versus evil in the standard way that the old myths were written. The characters are built up around that: the goodies and the baddies so to speak, and I can’t see that that’s a bad thing for children, when goodness and the people on the side of goodness are portrayed as the ones who will eventually win. Harry’s enemies resort to all sorts of evil things, and they are the ones who loose in the end. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, and I can’t see that does any harm to children.


What my advice would still be to parents: if you’re in doubt, read the books yourselves, the first one, that’s the shortest one, and see what you think. Don’t simply rely on somebody else’s opinion, not even on my opinion, since it’s only an opinion. But it’s probably a good thing to enjoy it and to see that there are no evil influences there.


Some of the people who complain to me quote a priest who has worked in Rome and has been described as the exorcist of Rome, saying that evil is just behind every line in the books. Well, I answered that by saying: I’m a priest as well, I’m not as holy as that man, but his is an opinion and mine is an opinion, and neither of us automatically has a right to the opinion being more authoritative. I would say you’d have to prove a thing like that, when you say that evil is behind every sentence. I can’t see it.


Maybe I’m blind, as one article about me said, maybe I’m stupid and doing the devil’s work, as another article about me said. I have a funny feeling I’m not doing the devil’s work, and I have another feeling I am not blind or stupid. I just think that there’s a lot of scare-mongering going on, particularly among people who do like to find the devil around every corner. I don’t think that’s a healthy view of the world. And as I said before, I’m one of the people who would name the devil, I don’t keep the devil out of my preaching or out of my understanding of Christianity; I’m one of the few that would mention him, so I don’t know where these people get their mad ideas. And I do think do think they are mad ideas.


I think one has to be quite calm in judging cultural phenomena. I’ve got a funny feeling that the success of Rowling is what started some people. Is it a kind of envy? I don’t know. But why they got so mad against her, I just don’t understand.


Another problem is comparing the Harry Potter books to the Lord of the Rings. I think they are very different sorts of literature really. Tolkien needed to entertain his children. He was a professor of ancient English or Middle English, and he knew all this runic language that he invented is part of a world he constructed, originally to keep himself amused and his children amused. And this whole world is the world in which the Silmarillion and the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings take place, whereas Harry Potter is just set in the amusing setting, if you’re an English person or a British person, of a public school, which is anything but public if people know what a public school is. It’s very private. My parents could not afford to send me there but that’s the world where Joanne Rowling said young witches and wizards would be trained. It’s obviously a totally nonsensical idea; it’s not constructing a world the way Tolkien did in the Lord of the Rings and so on. It’s much more down to earth and normal and banal if you like. It’s just a setting for an adventure between good and evil to take place. And she has an amazing talent of writing books that you don’t want to put down, that’s all there is going on there."


Former official at the Pontifical Council for culture, Msgr. Peter Fleedwood is currently working at the Council for European bishops’ conferences.

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Anonymous July 14, 2005 at 11:34 am

Oh, so now we’re allowed to comment, now that I’ve lost my train of thought and all. Just great.

Tim J. July 14, 2005 at 11:45 am

I was glad to see the comments turned off on the last couple of posts on this because more than likely people would be sounding off on whether or not Harry Potter was EEEE-vil rather than attending to the subject at hand, which is the handling (or mis-handling) of the story in the secular and Catholic press.

BillyHW July 14, 2005 at 12:05 pm

All right, can this be the last Harry Potter post?
I’m so sick of Harry Potter…

Publius July 14, 2005 at 12:08 pm

All right, can this be the last Harry Potter post?
I’m so sick of Harry Potter…

Then the next two weeks are going to be quite unpleasant for you, I’m afraid. What we’ve seen in the last two weeks is just the warm-up. Once HPB is released, things will get really crazy (not necessarily on Jimmy’s blog, but certainly elsewhere.

Gene Branaman July 14, 2005 at 12:22 pm

I totally agree, TimJ. Very well done, Jimmy! Excellent posts, too. Thanks.

Ed Peters July 14, 2005 at 12:30 pm

Um, if we (Jimmy) turn off the comments box for fear of letting ding-dongs post reply comments, then, heck, turn ’em all off and leave ’em all off. For good. I thought it odd they were off. I suspect it was oversight. Anyway, if the “I didn’t read what my flunky wrote before I signed two letters about this high-visibility book” defense is the one to be applied here, then the flunky better be getting fired as we speak. Why do I doubt that is happening?

Michelle Arnold July 14, 2005 at 12:30 pm

“All right, can this be the last Harry Potter post?
“I’m so sick of Harry Potter…

Sorry, but as a fan of the series, I may want to post my thoughts on the book when it is released on Saturday. But I’ll try not to saturate the field, so to speak. :)

al July 14, 2005 at 2:48 pm
Joshua July 14, 2005 at 3:08 pm

“LifeSiteNews made a lot out of the word judgment, even putting it in quotes for emphasis (and simultaneously misspelling it as “judgement”).”
Actually, judgment can be spelled wither “judgement” or “judgment”. The former is more common in British writings, but both are valid in American English as well

Richard Roland July 14, 2005 at 4:39 pm

Mr Akins says “Second, if you read the Potter books or watch the movies, it’s clear that the people in the stories are themselves being paranoid by not saying the name “Voldemort.” As Msgr. Fleedwood points out, Harry Potter has the courage to say the name of his enemy and isn’t cowed by the mere mention of the name, like the others are. Thus Rowling isn’t presenting Voldemort’s name as too sacred to mention, she’s presenting everybody but Harry as being too easily spooked. You may or may not like that literarily, but it isn’t a diss at God.”
That Rowling has most people (but not her protagonist) being cowed by the mere mention of Voldemort’s name is perfectly consistent with the theory that she is taking a jab at theism, with Voldemort representing the concept of God. It is common for atheists to belittle the poor theists cowering before their imagined God, while glorifying the freethinker who shows no reverence. Mr. Akins makes much of the distinction between regarding a name as sacred, on the one hand, and fearing the one bearing the name, on the other. On the contrary; there is little distance between the two. It is no accident that reverencing God is called “fearing” Him.

Anonymous July 14, 2005 at 5:00 pm

The vast majority of wizarding folk in the HP novels that are afraid to say the name of Voldemort are in no way, shape, or form his followers. Their fear most certainly isn’t reverence, or anything like it, so the parallel falls apart. Unless of course fearing someone who could and would torture and kill you and your family is the same as revering them, which is the most idiotic thing I’ve heard yet from the anti-Potterites.

Sonetka July 14, 2005 at 5:27 pm

Oh for the love of … back in the day, people were afraid to say the word “cancer” (the old “speak of the devil” thing) and I really doubt it was because they were secretly worshipping it. Voldemort is not a God-figure – he’s a very recent arrival in a world that’s existed for thousands of years. If anything, he’s more of a Hitler or Stalin figure. If you lived in their territory, you wouldn’t say their names too loudly either; never know who might be listening.

John W. July 14, 2005 at 5:36 pm

I’ve read all the Potter books and though I find them a semi-pleasant diversion, I don’t believe they are great literature, In fact I find they are cumbersome and slow moving in parts. I have enjoyed the movies so far.
I don’t find the Potter books in the same league as the Lord of the Rings.

Eileen R July 14, 2005 at 6:03 pm

I love the HP books. Well, I adore #3 and #4, like #1 and #2, and like most of #6, which needed some major editing imho.
Anyway, one of the reasons you don’t say a name in old folklore is that names have power. Voldemort is an evil name that no one wants to say because they’re afraid of it. The same thing is actually done in Tolkiens “Lord of the Rings” where the men of Gondor call Sauron “The Nameless One” and Beregond flinches when Pippin says his real name.
In the HP books, the heroes btw learn to stop being afraid of Voldemort’s name, because it doesn’t really have any power, and in fact, in the last book, Dumbledore showed his complete refusal to play Voldemort’s silly game by callling him by his *real* name, the rather unsinister Tom.
As Msgr. Fleedwood says, it doesn’t seem this woman read the books very well.

Eileen R July 14, 2005 at 6:06 pm

Errr… That’d be #5. #6 is waiting till midnight tomorrow. *crosses fingers* #5 really suffered from mid-book syndrome. Hardly anything happened in it, though lots of characters and settings were explained. I expected this will have more plot in it, which would be good. Rowling’s style is not the best in the world, but her plots are pretty fun, and she tells them with a good deal of humour.

Prester John July 14, 2005 at 6:50 pm

This has nothing to do with Harry… but… quoting from Fr. Fleedwood — Fleetwood? … and she takes this as an insult to the name of God in a similar way that Adonai, which is often written as Yahweh, is the name that should not be said in Jewish religion
Doesn’t he have that backwards. It’s YHWH that is never pronounced except on Yom Kippur and replaced by Adonai or Hashem (the Name!)

Steven D. Greydanus July 14, 2005 at 7:21 pm

I’d say that Mr Rolands has been good and stuffed. 😉

Gene Branaman July 14, 2005 at 9:04 pm

Agreed, Steven.
Mr Roland, head over to Amy Welborn’s Open Book blog & look for a post called “Okay, one more” dated 07/14/2005. Regina Doman is a yound adult novelist, mother of 5 children with one on the way, & a devout Catholic. Her essay on Potter, posted by Amy in it’s interiety, is extremely well-written & makes some very strong points. Please do check it out. One of the points she makes is that the evil forces in Rowlings books (Voldemort & his minsions) are nowhere near as powerful as the forces of good. Her points are all supported with examples from the books. Nice work that should be read by folks on both sides of the Potter debate!

ELC July 15, 2005 at 4:48 am

“Oh for the love of … back in the day, people were afraid to say the word ‘cancer’ (the old ‘speak of the devil’ thing) and I really doubt it was because they were secretly worshipping it.” Heck, through the 1940s, I’m sure, and probably into the 1950s, too, mainstream American newspapers would not use the word “abortion”. They would use a circumlocation such as “illegal operation”.

ELC July 15, 2005 at 4:50 am

Ha! That should be “circumlocUtion.” :-)

Jeff Miller July 15, 2005 at 6:30 am

Vatican radio has the mp3 of the interview with the MSGR here.

Mecandes July 15, 2005 at 6:56 am

I stumbled across the following quote by Michael O’Brien referring to the time when Msgr. Fleetwood at the Vatican made positive public statements about Harry Potter:
“In short, it was the superficial personal opinion of a man who may or may not have read the books. That the media turned this into a major world-class story is so blatant a violation of journalistic standards that one cannot help but wonder over it.”
…but isn’t that exactly what he and LifeSite are doing about the personal letter of Cardinal Ratzinger? Ratzinger at the time was not the Pope (and didn’t seem to be replying in any official capacity), and yet they have given the story the headline, “Pope Opposes Harry Potter Novels.”
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

vinegar July 15, 2005 at 7:25 am

It doesn’t matter that Benedict at that time wasn’t the Pope. He is the Pope now and presumably — just as Mr Akin himself presumed likewise with regard to the Pope’s judgment on another subject — he continues to hold to the same judgment, whether that judgment is promulgated in an Apostolic Constitution or not.
It also doesn’t matter whether what Benedict believes now or what Benedict wrote then is “binding” as a magisterial judgment. What does matter is that Benedict, then and now, is our pastor. He is a bishop and priest. When he wrote what he wrote, he didn’t take off his “priest’s hat.” A priest is unable to do that, especially not when responding pastorally. Since Benedict is our Pastor, we ought to listen to him and heed him. The Christian life isn’t about nuancing things academically and putting things into various academic categories. The Christian life, here, is about responding to Christ speaking through this priest and through our present pastor, whether it is done by word or example and whether that word or example is embued with a technical officiality or not. When we know that Benedict, as he stated when he was known by another name, has deep reservations about the “subtle seductions” in the Harry Potter series, the first thing to do is not to nuance to death or academically determine how much weight his statement has or if it has an official binding character. Rather, the first thing to do is to pray and with docility to one’s pastor and to the Holy Spirit, accept his judgment, whether it is of an officially binding character or not.
“I read the first novel and watched the first two movies.”
It is generally recognized that the later novels are even more problematic than the first novel.
Let me say I saw nothing misleading about the headline. It stated that Benedict opposes Harry Potter — which he still presumably does unless he has had some sudden change of heart and has neglected to inform the German author of this sudden change of heart — and it referenced in the same headline what Benedict had written when he was known as Ratzinger.
But the headline is not what’s important. What’s important is that we are docile to our pastor and replace his judgment with ours even when our own judgment about Harry Potter may have been different — unless we are to assume that we are spiritually wiser than the man known today as Benedict XVI, a man who has been described by none other than Francis Cardinal George, quoting others, as a “saint” as well as a “humble genius” — perhaps some don’t realize how much of a genius he is, but that is where the “saint” and “humble” part comes in — he doesn’t advertise it or brag about it.

vinegar July 15, 2005 at 7:35 am

“LifeSiteNews made a lot out of the word judgment, even putting it in quotes for emphasis (and simultaneously misspelling it as “judgement”).”
“Judgement” is a spelling that is sometimes used in Canada. The American spelling is also used. LifeSiteNews has Canada as part of its focus and readership. It mentions Canada before the United States when explaining its mission and one component of LifeSite is focused only on Canada.

Anonymous July 15, 2005 at 8:17 am

Yes, it’s just Canadian spelling. LifeSite news is located in Combermere, Ontario, Canada. The same place where Michael O’Brien lives (who is the actual originator of this story, and good pals with the LifeSite folks, his literal neighbours.)

Anonymous July 15, 2005 at 9:09 am

Since Ratzinger didn’t read muchless analyze HP and may not have even written the boilerplate note in question, there’s no spiritual “judgment” involved.
HP is not my favorite fantasy by any means, but seeing it misrepresented–as several Catholic commentators have done–makes me furious. I hope #6 is better than #5 which cried out for editing. The best book is #3 and PRISONER OF AZKABAN is a good film, much superior to the first two. Later books even more “problematical”? Like #3 in which Harry forgives the man who betrayed his parents to their deaths and framed his godfather for the murder? Prevents the traitor from being killed? Oh my, such behavior is sure to corrupt children!

Tim J. July 15, 2005 at 9:37 am

“It is generally recognized that the later novels are even more problematic than the first novel.”
Generally recognized by whom?

Anonymous July 15, 2005 at 9:43 am

Generally recognized by whom?
People who have heard the later novels are more problematic than the first novel.

Hairy Posterior July 15, 2005 at 9:46 am

“‘Judgement’ is a spelling that is sometimes used in Canada.”
It’s also a spelling that is sometimes used in the U.S. My dictionary says you can spell the word either way.

Eileen R July 15, 2005 at 12:07 pm

*laughs* The novels actually get less and less problematic from a moral POV as they go along, though they get darker in tone. For example, a lot of people worried over a bit in the first book where Dumbledore quotes Peter Pan and calls death “a great adventure.” But the fifth book ends with a rousing affirmation of the literal existence of heaven.
That final conversation between Luna Lovegood and Harry Potter, the one that begins to the heal the loss of his parents, friends, when she points out that he hasn’t lost them for ever, had me crying. The books do get more and more Christian as they go along.

ELC July 15, 2005 at 12:20 pm

Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that well-educated Catholic parents with good judgement are the ones with the charism to decide what’s appropriate reading for their children — and, it further seems to me, that’s the Catholic way to think about these situations. I say that as somebody who is neither a pastor nor a parent. :-) Of course, there are Catholic parents who are neither well educated nor have good judgement. But in that case, I should think, there’s more to worry about than what the children read.

Sean S. July 15, 2005 at 1:38 pm

I really wish people could criticise Harry Potter without calling into question the holiness, faithfulness, and orthodoxy of those who like the books. Seriously.

Varenius July 15, 2005 at 5:19 pm

So enough about Harry Potter. Jimmy, give us the dirt on this chick from Yuggoth! 😉

Anonymous July 15, 2005 at 7:28 pm

Oh, come on! “Voldemort is God”? You never hear people who don’t want to mention “the Devil” and use circumlocutions like “the Old Boy” and “His Satanic Majesty”?

Sailorette July 15, 2005 at 10:55 pm

How about the folks who DID follow old Voldie calling him “The Dark Lord”? That doesn’t sound too holy to me– sounds more like a devil stand-in. (Snape keeps calling him this– one of the reasons I like Snape is that he LEFT Voldie.)
Just want to add my two cents in favor of the lady who ask that folks not draw conclusions about how holy folks are based on what kind of fantasy story they’re reading…..

Anonymous July 16, 2005 at 1:02 am

It seems Fox News has gotten into the game of extrapolating from the Cardinal’s words a full blown condemnation, as well as quoting them out of context.
Reads the article:
‘Even the pope has taken a swipe at Harry.
In a March 2003 letter to Gabriele Kuby, author of the German book “Harry Potter — Good or Evil,” Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, expressed concern that the books “erode Christianity in the soul” of young people, Kuby said Thursday.
“It is good that you are throwing light on Harry Potter, because these are subtle seductions that work imperceptibly, and because of that deeply, and erode Christianity in the soul before it can even grow properly,” Benedict’s letter says.’,2933,162562,00.html
It seems to me that those who wish to do this are from the same group that grab Bible verses out of context and use them to prove that God is really a giant chicken from the planet Vulcan.

BillyHW July 16, 2005 at 5:48 am

Hey, even Raymond Arroyo on The World Over on EWTN said pretty much the same thing last night.

Sean S. July 16, 2005 at 6:37 am

Thanks, Sailorette, but I’m no lady ;).

MB July 16, 2005 at 11:52 am

Priests throughout my own diocese and at least one U.S. bishop who has been quoted in the press, have spoken favorably about Harry Potter. Although some of them may have spoken without actually reading the book, their opinion is taken as almost an article of faith. “See, Father so and so gave it his niece for Christmas, it must be fine.” Or, Bishop so and so said it was a good read, therefore, it must be okay.” But when we are dealing with a comment by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, some years ago, some rush to say, “It wasn’t official,” or “It wasn’t worthy of comment, shouldn’t have had a headline.” Why is it that some bishop in Colorado can make a comment and it is worth a headline and acceptance, while a comment made by Cardinal Ratzinger shouldn’t be published at all?
And “private” or not, they don’t take their priest hats off if they are making a comment on how it might affect one’s morals. Cardinal Ratzinger, if he commented on it, was commenting as a pastor. So were other priests who have taken the other side, and people have been taking the pro-Harry priests quite seriously all along.
In any case, I am less worried about “how the media handled it” than I am about Catholics in general who are bending over backward to defend a book your own mothers would not have let you read a generation ago. The book include toilet talk, references to urination and to excrement, students going behind the bushes in pairs.
Harry himself is certainly a worthy example of a regular “good guy”–blackmailing his uncle, lying, disobeying, taking revenge on other students, making fun of fat people. I can certainly see why every Catholic parent should read this book. Good of Father to have mentioned it at Mass.
Be sure to buy book # 4 for the kiddies, they’re never too young to learn about self-mutilation. Why should they wait till their medical school psychiatry rotation? Children need to know these things.
Book 2 is interesting. Did you notice those little plants that look like babies, and cry like babies? But they are not babies, they are plants that specially grown to be chopped up for medicine. Their cry is toxic, so the students have to wear ear muffs when they “transplant” the babies… so as not to hear their screams. Some people think that perhaps that passage is intended to desensitize people toward abortion or fetal tissue research… embryonic stem cell research? Surely not. But I just wonder why Rowling included that bit…
Then of course there is the whole question of “magic.” As the good priest from the Vatican mentions, we’ve all read books about witches, and here we all today all Catholics–we didn’t become wiccans just from reading Sleeping Beauty. Yes, but in ancient times when I was a kid, 50 years ago, the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad. Witches were bad, and heroes were really good and noble. Good guys didn’t lie, and didn’t talk about people’s fat butts. They didn’t blackmail.
In Harry Potter, you have the good wizards and the bad wizards, good magic and bad magic. How easy to go from there to the modern understanding that “white magic” is good and “black magic” is bad. I personally know someone very close to me who allowed a “white witch” to cast spells of white magic in his home. This is not just fantasy. There are witches and satanists in the real world who practice a religion that is different from our own. I think it is not such a good idea to blur the distinctions and let kids read something that normalizes and glamorizes witchcraft and magic instead of portraying it as dangerous and evil as was often the case with the the older tales of my generation.
Michael O’Brien tries to make a point about this by suggesting that parents would not want their children to read a book about good fornicators vs. bad fornicators, but with wizardry, it’s a different story for some reason. Why?
Why do priests feel compelled to defend this book from the pulpit?
Medical research shows that when kids watch TV programs that include violence, they become more violent in their behavior. Parents also have observed that when kids watch TV shows where children are rude to others that the children sometimes start acting that way–and parents restrict that TV show. Why is it that we think kids should read Harry Potter–that he is miraculously exempt from this principle of imitation, and that kids can immerse themselves in volume after volume of lying, blackmailing, and so on, and still be utterly unaffected. In fact, as some claim… in a recent CNS article reviewing a new book about Harry Potter… Harry Potter actually teaches Gospel values.
It boggles the mind. God save us. The anti-Harry group is taking Bible verses out of context? Maybe the pro-Harry group is reading the a different Gospel… one that says lying is good, revenge is good, blackmail is good, whatever it takes to get what you want is good, sex behind the bushes is good, black magic is bad but white magic is good… This is what the Harry Potter books teach, and if THIS is what the Gospel says, I’m in the wrong church.
It is hardly a question of one or two isolated verses, but a whole fabric we are discussing.

Tim J. July 16, 2005 at 12:23 pm

There is “good magic” and “bad magic” in the Narnia books. Do these stories pass muster, or should we just toss everything but the Bible and official church documents?
This new rule seems to be, if it is really popular and is not explicitly Christian, it must be evil.

Peppy July 16, 2005 at 12:53 pm

Very good entry, MB. I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

Sailorette July 16, 2005 at 1:10 pm

The “baby roots”– hello, I am a member of the humor family; my name is pun. Maybe you’ve heard of me? MANdrake–and little mandrake roots look like little men, which is to say “babies”.
I’ve been making fun of folks who take a priest’s word for holy writ for years. I have noticed it’s usually done by folks who do not understand how the Church works as far as making official judgments on things. (Even though I was not above using the fact that my youth group priest watched X-Files to get my folks to my siblings and me watch.)
What part are you talking about for book four’s self mutilation?
Gee, so Gina the Good Witch, the three nice fairies from Sleeping Beauty, Merlin and ever-lovin’-GANDALF weren’t there 50 years ago? They use magic, which is bad. I think the point you’re getting at is that the “heroes” in most stories today have been dragged down to a human level, rather than a rolemodel level. I don’t much care for it myself, which is why I read lots of things like “the Wargod’s Own” by David Weber; he’s not afraid to make the characters larger than life, and I can still empathize with them.
I know several Wiccans. You know the trait I’ve been able to identify among them? They hate organized religion because of some kind of corperate-guilt idea where anything someone of a group did wrong, the entire group is guilty for, and they plain old don’t want to think about WHY they believe something. (That Wicca pisses off their folks is a bonus.) About the same number of folks I know are generic Christian– who don’t even know there are different versions of the Bible. The weakness of spiritual development is there in both cases, and I can see what then-Cardnal Ratzinger might mean about choking out faith before it takes root. “Magic” COULD fill the ache for spiritual fullness that folks feel, if they don’t already have something there. That said, HP isn’t much of a threat because you aren’t going to get a house broom to jump up into your hand…..
I figure some priest feel a need to defend it from the pulpit because humorless twits would take silence as a ringing endorcement of some kind of Catholic ban on the book– the same way I have to explain in every dungeons and dragons group that I join that the Catholic Church *did not* condem gaming– even if this or that priest said they didn’t like it. (Incidentally, the Church has put out an offical position on gaming, kind of– an offical statement was made that a player is not morally responsable for immoral acts by their characters, but should try to advance good; I think it was aimed at movie actors, but it carries over quite well.)
For the good fornicators vs. bad fornicators– with in the Harry Potter context, it’s removed from reality (The “real” witchs I know don’t wear robes, pointy hats, use potter-type wands, try to fly on brooms and half don’t believe in fairies.)
What if someone made a book about good fornicators vs. bad fornicators, but they “fornicated” by standing in the same room and playing air guitar? That’s ludicrous, right? So is casting a spell by yelling “float!” in Latin while you wave a stick.
Try taking the magic as a metaphor; keep in mind that Mrs. Rowling does not BELIEVE in magic– she thinks there’s nothing out there for kids who try wicca to reach. I disagree, but I can’t hold her accountable for indirectly exposing kids to a danger she doesn’t believe exists.

Sailorette July 16, 2005 at 3:54 pm

*googles around*
Whoe, you think that having the BAD GUYS do something horrific, like cut off their own arm to raise the evil lord, counts as endorsement? This act, by the same character who cut off his finger to make folks think he was dead and frame Harry’s godfather, after he betrayed Harry’s parents? I know folks who think Voldie has some class– he is a pretty chilling villain– and I know lots of folks who like Snape– who was evil and is a jerk– but I don’t know anybody who *likes* Peter Pettigrew; folks either pity him or are disgusted.

Anonymous July 16, 2005 at 8:05 pm

>There is “good magic” and “bad magic” in the Narnia books. Do these stories pass muster, or should we just toss everything but the Bible and official church documents? Posted by: Tim J.
Tim, I’ve read the Narnia books several times, but not recently. I do recall though when Edmond gets involved with the witch and informs on his friends to get the Turkish Delight candy–bad things happen. In the Narnia books, some of the heroes are indeed human and do somewhat bad things, but there are bad consquences and they apologize as Edmond eventually did. The witch was bad, the Lion was good, a Christ figure. When you did things that were forbidden, when you cooperated with the witch, bad things happened.
This is different from Harry Potter, who is supposedly the best of the good guys, but he lies, blackmails, breaks all the rules.
The problem is not simply about good vs. evil, but with evil things being portrayed as good and the distinctions blurred.
For adults who want some light entertainment–I sure can’t stop you if you want to read it. But for parents who want to raise kids as Christians, I think it sends a very mixed message to have a hero who doesn’t just make mistakes, but who is entrenched in bad behavior and who does “whatever it takes” to get what he wants–that is not a Christian orientation. It is a common 20th century orientation but not a Christian orientation.
Catholic parents who want to raise Catholic children would be making a mistake to buy this series for their kids in my opinion. And it amazes me how many priests read and recommend it.
I think it is like with movies–some movies are AIII, adults only, and some A1 for kids and everyone, with no moral problems. A discerning adult can read some things if they want to, where it might be harmful to a child who is still trying to learn right from wrong.

Doug Lazorick July 21, 2005 at 5:22 pm

One of the things I’d wish the anti-Harry people would consider comes from books 5 & 6. Dumbledore teaches Harry that love and friendship are stronger than all of Voldemort’s dark magic. The end is not in question good always triumphs over evil and love will always triumph over hate.

Leeta August 2, 2005 at 5:38 pm

Harry Potter is definitely not suitable for kids. MB’s post is good. The distinctions between good and evil are blurred. It is very violent, especially in #4 and #5. The injuries to the children are described in such a voyeristic way. And some of the magic is real, unlike that of Narnia, Tolkein and fairy tales. Some of the books on Harry’s reading list are actual occult books. Why would we want our children to be exposed to even that much of the occult in an entertaining manner? Why would we want to confuse our children? St. Paul says we are not even to speak about evil idly. Do we want to keep our hearts and minds on Christ or do we seek endless, idle diversion such as is found in the HP books?

Tim J. August 2, 2005 at 5:43 pm

Where does HP depict real magic, and which books are real occult books?
Please be specific.

Bear August 2, 2005 at 6:52 pm

This is a question from someone who is completely neutral on the subject of HP. I have read the first book but none of the others. The magic etc. does not worry as much as does the fact that, from what I’ve heard, Harry lies, cheats, blackmails, and other things like that but suffers no consequences; in other words these things are presented as O.K. because it is a “good guy” who does them for “good” reasons. Again, not having read the later books, I don’t know if this is true or not. What do the pro-HPers have to say about this?
To be quite honest, the other thing that concerns me about it is the fanaticism which people show towards it, even Catholics who are otherwise even-keel. Waiting in line for hours and braving huge crowds just to get the book the hour it comes out doesn’t sound too healthy to me. What’s that all about?

Mary August 7, 2005 at 8:36 pm

Tim, I don’t really understand the fanaticism, either, though I was certainly eager to see how the story continued after waiting for two or three years! I guess it’s just human love for a good story – like all the people camping out to see “Star Wars” movies. Not much more to say about that, but I wanted to comment on the lying, cheating, etc, as a pro- Harry catholic.
Specifically on this subject, I’d recommend Leonie Caldecott’s essays. She points out in one of them that, in ‘order of the Phoenix” (book 5), Harry suffers the consequences of his lies. Precisely because he fails to tell the truth to a concerned adult and fails to learn what that adult has told him to learn, he causes his beloved godfather’s death. That’s a pretty harsh consequence. Ms. Caldecott also points out that, in the same book, another adult unjustly punishes Harry, forcing him to write “I will not tell lies” in his own blood. Harry has not in fact been lying in this scene – he has been telling the truth – and he will not give in to torture and abandon that truth. We are very clearly meant to see his devotion to the truth in this instance as admirable.
Another essay I’d recommend is by John Granger – I got to this site from his, which is He has several essays on the site, including a brilliant analysis of the Christian symbolism and meaning of the climax of the second book, “Chamber of Secrets.” Like Leonie Caldecott’s essays, his are worth a look. I was able to name some of the Christ symbols in the books and had felt strongly that there was something very significant in this scene (it’s the battle with the serpent in the chamber), but I couldn’t elucidate it the way he does. And when I read this essay, I was saying to myself, “Oh, of course!”
I guess people who emphasize Harry’s flawed behavior are upset at having a realistic adolescent as a hero. This kid has been bullied and lied to all his life before the age of 11; what’s marvellous is not that he sometimes bullies and lies in reponse, but that he has a strong altruistic streak, is loyal to his friends, and is also both loyal and obedient to those adults who merit such a response. With all these virtues – and we do see his sypathetic imagination growing throughout the books – he remains a rather pigheaded teenager with some growing up to do – but, as Granger points out, these books, at one level, are specifically about the soul’s journey to maturity. And there’s much to admire about Harry in spite of his flaws. HTH!

Mary August 8, 2005 at 9:52 am

On the realistic behavior, well, things can get complicated.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things.” — and it is not hard to find fiction nowadays that thinks the obverse is true.
OTOH, the mere presence of unadmirable behavior does not make it wrong to read a story. Far worse than Harry Potter is the story that ends the Book of Judges — the one that was cited as falling afoul of the Dworkin antipornography statute. No one behaves admirably in that story, and the narrator’s only comment comes at the end, however trenchant: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what he thought best.”
On the third hand, we don’t start children off with balancing checkbooks when we teach arithmetic. We start with 1+1, etc. As children grow older, they learn more complexity, including such matters as learning just because a story presents a character, even an often admirable character, doing something, doesn’t mean it’s right. And they learn to see a whole story and how the parts fit together.
slight spoiler warning
On the fourth hand, at least one of the major complaints was Harry’s disrespect for authority. While Harry does not obey all sources of authority in this book — which would be impossible — he definitely shows respect for the concept.
end spoiler warning

Bear August 9, 2005 at 3:58 pm

I agree that the simple presence of wrong action in a story doesn’t render it morally wrong to be read by a Christian. This is true even in cases where the wrong-doer is not redeemed, as long as the story portrays their depravity as tragic and not admirable. This is why Dostoyevsky is so good.
On the other hand, though, there are stories which portray evil actions as commendable, and these I would seek to avoid, especially for children, unless I was specifically trying to gain information about a point of view I already knew was wrong.
The catch is, though, that we have to be engaged and critical with the stories to be able recognize what we are being fed. I remember discussing a particular television movie about the life of Christ with a group of intelligent, orthodox Catholics. I was astounded that none of them recognized that the movie was endorsing a heretical view of Christ’s nature. Their enjoyment of the story and the simple fact that it was about Jesus had blinded them to analyzing it critically. I think this is a danger we have to watch out for.
On that note, I asked the original question because I was just wondering whether HP portrayed the erroneous idea that “ends justify the means”, and that Harry’s immoral acts were justified by his intentions, or whether Harry commited these acts out of a lack of wisdom on his part, and that he later discovered he chose wrongly.

Gene Branaman August 9, 2005 at 5:50 pm

Harry & his friends have learned from their mistakes in the earlier books. As Mary pointed out, they’ve even suffered the consequences of those choices. But the books are told in a specific 3rd person form that allows the reader to know Harry’s thoughts, feelings, etc, but not that of the other characters. Harry never really has a clear, full picture of the events going around him. Even Dumbledore doesn’t tell Harry everything (like why does Albus trusts Snape) & this lack of knowledge causes Harry to make the choices he does. (Don’t we do the same?) So what we readers get is Harry’s opinion of what’s happening filtered through his lack of knowledge. He acts on what he knows & doesn’t always make the right choices but he does learn from his mistakes.
What evil actions are you specifically concerned with, Bear? Having read all 6 books, I see a kid, from a very challenging background as Mary pointed out, making bad choices but his life doesn’t get any easier because of these choices. And, as he grows, he makes fewer & fewer bad choices & never, not once, makes the easy choice to avoid dealing with the evil that he’s slowly realizing he’s destined to face in Lord Voldemort. In Half-Blood Prince, it’s even put to him that, if the prophecy we learn of in Order of the Phoenix weren’t really about Harry, would he still oppose Voldemort & the Death Eaters in such a visable & direct way. Harry says that it wouldn’t make any difference, knowing that it may well cost him his life.
Finally, we here in the US simply don’t get the “joke” behind Rowling’s decision to set these books in what is effectively a tradition British public form school. For those who do not know, “public” schools in the UK are “private” schools to us here in the USA. And there’s an entire sub-genre of books, like Tom Brown’s Schooldays & many more dating back to the 1800’s & before, that describe the experience of attending such schools. The formula is basically that a wealthy young boy (‘cos they were all-boys schools, originally) is sent off to school, make mistakes (big ones where he’s up against authority) & friends (loyal ones who’ll always stay by him), learn major life-lessions (usually at some cost), & grow into a virtuous gentlemen. Here in the US, we simply do not have the same history of these sorts of schools; something like A Separate Peace or Dead Poet’s Society are probably the closest, but they’re not at all the same. But in Britain, it’s a very visable part of their educational system & everyone in the UK who read Philosopher’s Stone understood right away exactly what Hogwarts was supposed to be. Google “Rugby school” & you’ll see what I mean. It doesn’t take much digging to see that Rowling’s nailed the form school experience in the HP books.

Mary August 9, 2005 at 6:22 pm

OTOH, we do have stories set in schools, among teenagers.
And one of the great reasons why Harry Potter does so well is that it’s cross-genre. It’s a school story as well as a fantasy story.
And even American children will recognize it as much closer to their own schooling than any other fantasy novel’s wizard school. Homework, for instance.

Mary August 9, 2005 at 8:02 pm

I don’t think that the “ends justifies the means” has been regarded as justified in the series. Some views of some actions in Half-Blood Prince, which would be spoilers to mention, explain away a certain character’s actions by invoking it.
We shall see when book 7 comes out.

Bear August 9, 2005 at 11:28 pm

Gene: I don’t have any specifics to point out, as I haven’t read any of the books since the first one. It just seemed to me that most of the people who are opposed to it are so because of the presence of magic, with which I don’t automatically have a problem. I had heard from anti-HP folks that there were other instances in the later books that might be objectionable, namely Harry’s use of immoral means (irrelevant to the presence of magic), and just wanted to hear pro-HP comments on that topic, as it seemed absent from the debate.
It appears from your comments that those instances are neither very common nor treated as acceptable, even if they aren’t explicitly condemned. That’s no more than I would ask; I don’t think his errors have to be singled out and moralized-upon. So with what you’ve said, I don’t see a great problem with HP on this topic. I would have to read the later books, though, to comment more intelligently on the issue.
I did read the first book, as I said, and I found it intriguing and well-crafted. I remember that for a period after finishing it, I strongly wanted to read more, and that feeling concerned me, because it wasn’t the usual pleasure that I get from a good piece of literature. I couldn’t give reasons for it like I could normally give for a work I enjoyed; this felt like more of an unconcious impulse. After it wore off, though, I didn’t feel compelled to read the later ones. I will admit to being reflexively suspicious of anything which gains such a strong, widespread endorsement from the media-entertainment-pop-culture-at-large, and that combined with my first experience of the book has made me a bit cautious.

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